If you’re hunting high and low for the trendy new Sparrow Room, a speakeasy-style dim sum parlor behind Bun’d Up eatery in Arlington, just follow the click-click-click of mahjong tiles.
The 18th-century Chinese game is the main draw in this ornate, dimly lit room; once mere storage space for the counter-service restaurant it adjoins at 1201 South Joyce Street, it’s now decked out in deep jade paint and dark chinoiserie wallpaper. Custom mahjong tables stand in the center. Creative cocktails, including one garnished with pork belly, crank up the appeal.
“We had talked about turning the space into a private event room or sort of dive bar,” says restaurateur Scott Chung, who opened the Sparrow Room earlier this year with chef Andrew Lo. “We wanted it to be a little different or something unique to the area. And then that’s when Andrew had the idea to turn it into a mahjong parlor, and we ran with it.”
Mahjong is a common game in Chinese culture, but Lo says it proves difficult to find parlors to play here in Virginia. He doesn’t even know of any others in the country, which is part of why he wanted to open one.
“I come from a civil-rights background, so I wanted to do something to celebrate the culture,” says Lo, who grew up playing mahjong with his parents in Kansas City, Kansas. “When you’re trying to advocate for a culture of people, yes, learning about oppression and suffering is important. But it is a lot more accessible for people to interact with the celebratory parts of different cultures.”
The unique cocktail program was crafted through a partnership with Micah Wilder and Hunter Douglas of DC’s Mercy Me. The White Tiger Milk Punch made with Ilegal mezcal, baijiu, oolong, Sichuan pepper, and Hong Kong mango pudding has been a hit on the weekends, Lo says, as has the Bamboo Manhattan, the concoction garnished with a slab of pork belly.
As for what to eat, Lo says many people opt to try what he calls the “holy trinity” of dim sum: siu mai (pork shoulder, shrimp, dried shiitake), hao gao (shrimp, ginger, bamboo shoots, white pepper), and char siu bao (milk bread, doubanjiang, pork belly). Also on the menu are dishes like turnip cake, popcorn chicken, and mango pudding.
Ready to play? Ticketed beginner’s classes are held every Wednesday from 6 to 8:30 p.m. Otherwise, you can reserve a table via the website, sparrowroom.com, from Thursday through Sunday; walk-ins are first come, first served. Staffers all know the game and can offer pointers to newbies. Printed guides are on hand, too.
“It’s just something you have to come see and experience for yourself,” says Lo.